J.P. Plutt
Wednesday, October 12, 2022

People in Dillon love football, whether it’s played by students at Dillon Middle School or Beaverhead County High School’s varsity and subvarsity teams or by the University of Montana Western. Part of what makes football so appealing to locals is for a team to be successful, its players have to cooperate—with one another and with leadership and even with other teams to set up games and adhere to rules and longstanding traditions. That’s also a big part of what makes living in Dillon so appealing—and what allows the town to continue to operate. Sharing. Cooperation. Respectful communication as opposed to just making a big decision on your own that will negatively impact your neighbors.

I am a grandpa now, with a granddaughter and grandson. I find myself around a lot of kids now. Cousins and friends, they appear from all over.

It is the best thing ever having grandchildren. Watching little kids play you sometimes see behavior that will soon be corrected but is fascinating to watch. The bigger, stronger, older kid will watch a younger one playing with one of the older kids’ toys. Just having a great old time. The older kid will walk over and just take the toy. “Mine.”

The little kid will cry a little bit, and then become fascinated with a different toy. The older kid, who has been pretending to play with the repossessed toy, now goes over, grabs the second toy, “Mine.” Cry. New toy. Repossession. Mine.

At some point, you tell the older kid that they can’t do that and the kid says, “They’re my toys.”

“That doesn’t matter. We share things around here. Now you give that toy back and apologize.”

And before too long, the kid learns to share, and how it’s to everyone’s benefit, including his own, to understand he or she is part of a community based on the concept of sharing and looking out for your neighbors – instead of just yourself and your own limited vision of what is allowed.

A community tradition of over 80 years of cooperation and sharing between the Beaverhead County High School and University of Montana Western football teams ended earlier this fall when Western decided that the Dillon program could not practice on “their” field down at Vigilante Park and that the BCHS sub-varsity team could not play its games on the field anymore.

Western uses the practice field adjacent to the main field as the venue for game day tailgate parties. It is quite the sight and the Bulldog backers have a great time. They pull their cars and trucks with trailers onto the field, fire trucks roll through, everybody sets up and barbecues and enjoys a day at the ball game.

The BCHS teams and Western teams have shared the field since it was built, and for over 80 years there has never been a problem with the sub-varsity squads from the high school playing their games at Vigilante Field.

But for the first sub-varsity game of the 2022 season, confusion and conflict reigned. Parents, grandparents and friends showed up for a game and then relocated to the practice field where there were no bleachers, no scoreboard. For Keith and Verla Andersen, the lack of seating was a problem. They have been going to events at Vigilante Field for decades. They were there to watch Gabe Lemelin play football, as they had Gabe’s brother Carstyn in the years before that and Carstyn’s cousins Troy and Holly Andersen before that. They went to Vigilante Field to watch their own kids run track. There is no graceful way to say it, but Keith and Verla are too old to stand out in a parking lot and watch a three-hour football game and anyone with common sense wouldn’t ask them to.

Meanwhile that day, the Dillon varsity had to practice, and the only place to do that -- since the practice field was occupied -- was the main field. Shockingly, words between officials of the two schools were exchanged over that decision.

Yep, people began asking me what was going on. I know you don’t speculate with these things. You go to the best source you can find and get a straight answer. There are always multiple sides to any situation. I stopped at UMW Athletic Director Michael Fueling’s office at Straugh Gym on the campus of the University of Montana.

“I have no comment at this time,” said the A.D. After some back and forth, Fueling added, “It is for the health and safety of our players.”

The Dillon community includes all residents, regardless of where they work. Heck, one of the star players on the Beavers is the son of the UMW head football coach. Western is one of the largest employers in Dillon and there are many, many children with ties to UMW employees attending either SD#10 or BCHS. Many play football.

Since the BCHS sub-varsity season started, there have been a startling number of serious injuries to players from both teams playing in those games. According to BCHS Athletic Trainer Alysa Brown, as of Friday there have been three broken wrists, a broken arm, a broken leg (both tibia and fibia), and a player was carried to an ambulance on a spine-board for further evaluation at the hospital.

1940 was a good year

Around Dillon, 1940 was an exciting year. The construction of the new high school finished up and BCHS welcomed students to the new (and still current) school for the first time that fall. The fairgrounds put up flood lights and for the first time, BCHS football coach Clancy Johnson and UMW football coach Bill Straugh brought their teams to the rodeo arena for night games (BCHS on Fridays and Western on Saturdays).

With construction of the school underway in the late 1930s, the excitement got Dillon civic organizations thinking and they decided Dillon needed a park for the children of the community. The groups started raising money and purchased from the Gilmore and Pittsburgh Railroad Company 13 acres of land “situated in the vicinity of Beaverhead County High School for use as a park and playground.” On Oct. 2, 1940, the committee representing the civic groups (C.A. Bechler, Mrs. R.D. Curry, Mrs. Fred Kerr and Conrad Orr) met with the Dillon City Council and signed the deed over to the city with the agreement spelled out that the land was dedicated for a park.

The forward-thinking committee outlined plans for a six-acre playground and a seven-acre athletic field area for a football field and running track. Through the 1940s, Beaverhead County High School would sod and develop a football field on the land and Western continued their partnership with BCHS and played their games on the field.

On June 2, 1949, the City of Dillon signed the seven-acre athletic field part of the park over to Western. It is not really clear why, but perhaps Western felt obligated to help develop the field. They had $15,000 to spend on the project which likely convinced the city to put the park in the State of Montana’s name, and spelled out on the deed “it appears to the council that the conveyance of said tract of land to the State of Montana will be in furtherance of and in keeping with the expressed intentions and objects of the original donors, and will be beneficial to the City of Dillon and its citizens.”

Yep, the deed is in Western’s name, or at least the State of Montana. Since 1949 and long before, BCHS and Western have worked together for the betterment of both entities and have never had a problem sharing.

That is, until this fall. The spirit and intent of the people that made the park a reality does not align with Western’s recent action.

Why? At this point we don’t know. Perhaps whomever is making the decision in the UMW athletic department can’t read a room, or hasn’t participated in a real community setting where everyone is working to make Dillon a better place.

J.P. Plutt was born in 1960 and grew up one-half block from Vigilante Park. He considered the park his back yard and watched everything from Ron “Swede” Kenison coach BCHS football practice to decades of Bulldog and Beaver football games play out on what he and many other Dillon natives considers sacred sports and community ground.